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The ins and outs of food nutrition labels

12 mins read

For those of you who want to lose, gain or maintain weight, chances are you might be looking to make good consumer choices when you shop at the supermarket. For some of us who are tracking our food, you’re probably looking for something that fits into your calorie count for the day.

But just how accurate is the information specified on those food labels?

While it is probably not a good idea to obsess over the exact amount of energy and nutrients you need, it is good to know the ways in which businesses market their products, so you can be better prepared when you come to your next shop.

This won’t be a major scientific breakdown of nutrition. That information is available on the British Nutrition Foundation site.

Instead it will be information based on aspects of food labelling which you might find useful. But I will be including lots of sources to back up my advice.

First of all, here’s what a UK label looks like.

UK nutritional information. Source: Institute of Health Sciences

Let me take you through some important aspects:

Calorie counts

All food labels measure energy in calories. They are calculated using a method called the Atwater system.

In the 19th century, Wilbur Atwater invented the respiration calorimeter.

It was a chamber, that measured oxygen and carbon dioxide (when people were inside the chamber) after eating certain foods. The system would then estimate the heat and metabolic activity produced from a food.

With no previous research to go on, and using Victorian technology, Atwater worked blind. Nowadays calorimeters are more advanced.

But this means the calorie count of any food label is not 100% accurate.

While you can calculate the calories based on the macronutrient values and get a relatively accurate reading of the calorie count on UK and EU labels, this is not the case in the USA.

That’s because the USA allows for a wide variance in accuracy on their food labels. This is not found on the Food Information EU regulation, and therefore does not apply to us.

Instead, what you should take into account, is that calorie counts might change when you cook food.

If you’re cooking foods in oil or butter, you’re adding calories. Oil is a fat, and fat has 9 calories per g/ml.

Whereas if you boil foods, water does not have calories and neither does salt. Consider the amount of oil you’re using when cooking your food and log/track the amount.

You might find that an alternative method of cooking could be healthier for you. But there’s always cheat day for that fry-up!

In summary, calorie counts here in the UK are generally averaged values based on calculations from Atwaters methods. This is stated in the EU regulations.

And that is why it is not worth obsessing over exact amounts, but instead log what you eat, and take an average reading of your weight per week. Then you can adjust your calories if necessary.

Low fat foods

Dolmio food product marketed as low fat. Source: Sainsbury’s

Historically, the sugar industry shifted the blame of obesity onto fat. But fat is an essential macronutrient.

And foods marketed as ‘low fat’ might be hiding sugar or other unhealthy ingredients. Check the ingredients list when you’re buying ‘low fat’ foods.

Annex VI in the EU regulation I cited states that anything equal to or below 7% of fat is considered lean.

For athletes, or anyone who eats meat and wants a healthier choice, go for the leaner options. I recommend below 5% fat.

Bottom line: Don’t worry about fats, they’re essential. Worry only about trans fats. I talked about them in a previous article.

Remember your omega-3 fatty acids, those are really beneficial.

Fat, of which saturates

Saturated fat has been in the media for years, ever since 1970. It has gotten a bad reputation, as a result of a flawed study which looked at incidences of saturated fat intake and heart disease.

But in 2010, an evaluation of 21 studies showed that this is not the case.

And the hype around good and bad cholesterol is also flawed.

Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is deemed to be ‘bad’ but there are two kinds. Large particles (Type A) and small dense particles (Type B). Type B are closely linked to heart disease.

When we eat saturated fats, they actually help to reduce type A LDL particles, not type B.

Dr. Michael Eades and Dr. Mary Dan Eades, who introduced insulin resistance to the mainstream, show that saturated fat is good for our immunity, hormones, and liver health.

These fatty acids help white blood cells recognise and fight pathogens. They also encourage cells in the liver to drop fat cells, and increase testosterone levels, which repair and preserve muscle.

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Another study found an association between processed meats and heart disease but not from lean red meat. If you fall ill from saturated fat, it’s more likely it’s from a poor quality source..

My advice for people who eat meat is: don’t worry too much about saturated fat, as scientists are beginning to speak out on it and the tides are turning.

Remember this won’t necessarily apply if your saturated fats are from non-animal sources. But some plant sources such as coconut, and coconut oil have saturated fats, too.

Carbohydrate, of which sugars

In the UK, sugar refers to any sucrose. While in the US, most ingredients can mean sugar (high fructose corn syrup comes to mind).

Sugar also has a bad reputation. But remember that sugar has 4 calories per gram because it’s a carbohydrate.

The problem isn’t necessarily sugar itself. It’s more the hidden quantities of it which food manufacturers can get away with.

And it’s also the way marketers advertise their products .

Anything which says ‘no added sugar’ or ‘low sugar’ does not automatically make it a healthy choice. This is because it does not negate the content of sugar already in the product.

Your orange and apple juices which have concentrate in their ingredients might still have added sugar, because concentrate is used as a sweetener, so it does not have to be labelled.

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Sugar in foods also increases blood sugar levels, and then insulin levels to combat the blood sugar. These levels then drop rapidly after a while.

This results in the feeling of wanting more. This is the feeling you get after you’ve eaten a sweet treat like a biscuit, or drank a Coke or Irn-Bru.

My advice: Check the food ingredient list for sugar, and check the sugar quantity on the label. If sugar is in the first 3-4 ingredients listed, chances are the food is high in sugar and not healthy.

Fibre

The next nutrient found on the label is fibre. It increases the satiety of what you eat, making you feel fuller. This can prevent overeating on a weight loss diet.

But fibre also improves digestion. Any food high in fibre is likely to be good for you, but check accordingly.

Wholewheat pastas and breads contain more fibre than white pastas and breads.

Protein

On food labels, protein is always listed. It has 4 calories per gram, and is essential for growth and repair.

There are different types of proteins which you should consider based on your diet.

Whey and casein proteins are found in milk. Whey is a fast digesting protein, and casein is a slow digesting protein.

You also have soy protein, which is found in most veggie/vegan foods. There is a lot of debate about if soy is healthy or not.

But soy has all 8 essential amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids.

My advice: All protein is good, especially for weight loss and muscle growth. And regardless if you eat meat, or don’t, you can find good sources of protein out there.

We suggest this product contains approx. ‘n’ servings

Don’t ignore this vital part of the food label! It could be the difference between you and your weight loss if your calorie count is based on your serving.

For instance, my packet of wholewheat pasta contains 168 calories, and approximately 6 servings.

That means 6 servings of my pasta is 28 calories each.

So if you’re going by serving size, just know you’re getting less quantities and you should take it into account when you’re logging your food.

Don’t miss this vital information. It will come in super handy for you.

Some points to note

Remember that if you’re on a certain kind of diet, take the information that is relevant to you and apply it to your food choices.

Pure alcohol, ethanol, has 7 calories per gram. They don’t always show calorie counts on alcoholic drinks in the UK, but it is worth noting that not all drinks are made equal when it comes to those calories.

Check ingredients lists, as a huge list heavily suggests an unhealthier product.

I always recommend choosing and consuming in moderation. This article isn’t to lure you away from sugar or anything.

It’s okay to treat yourself occasionally and as we’re in lockdown, eating food might even help.

But when we’re all back at uni, perhaps that irresistible bowl of curly fries in the Union will make you feel good, or even better, keep you on track.

Happy eating!

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